Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, along with Defense Department General Counsel Stephen Preston, appeared Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee for a hearing to address The May 31, 2014 Transfer of Five Senior Taliban Detainees.

The agreement to release those five detainees when the U.S. arranged to recover Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from captivity has sparked controversy since those details became known. Another point of contention has been the Obama administration’s decision not to notify Congress of the exchange in advance.  Both of these were areas of focus that received much attention in Wednesday’s hearing.

Hagel provided some insight into the negotiation process of the exchange at the start of the hearing in his prepared opening remarks, explaining that the opportunity came about quickly and many of the details had not been clarified until merely days before the exchange took place. This, he indicated, influenced the decision not to notify Congress in advance.  In addition, Hagel explained, there were concerns about potential leaks that could derail the process.

As the opportunity to obtain Sergeant Bergdahl’s release became clearer, we grew increasingly concerned that any delay, or any leaks, could derail the deal and further endanger Sergeant Bergdahl. We were told by the Qataris that a leak would end the negotiations for Bergdahl’s release. We also knew that he would be extremely vulnerable during any movement, and our military personnel conducting the hand-off would be exposed to a possible ambush or other deadly scenarios in very dangerous territory.

And we had been given no information on where the hand-off would occur.

This sparked criticism from both sides of the political aisle.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Republicans and Democrats focused much of their attention on the administration’s decision to not inform top members of Congress ahead of the transfer. Rep. Adam Smith (D., Wash.), the panel’s top Democrat, criticized the White House for its poor record of working with Congress, while Rep. Randy Forbes (R., Va.) said the administration can’t just “pick and choose” which laws it wants to follow. Under existing law, Congress was supposed to be notified 30 days ahead of any detainee release.

Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) blasted Hagel on this point, expressing that the perception Congress could not be trusted “is insulting.”

Lawmakers also pressed further on the issue of the Taliban detainees as Hagel seemed to downplay the potential threat regarding their release.

From FOX News:

Hagel also tried to downplay the risk inherent in the exchange, claiming the former Guantanamo detainees were planners, and had not directly participated in attacks on Americans.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., quickly pointed out that Usama bin Laden was also a planner. “Bin Laden didn’t pull a trigger, but we went after him,” McKeon said.

Hagel said he has no illusions about the five men traded for Bergdahl’s freedom. He acknowledged the possibility that they could rejoin the fight, but said they would do so “at their own peril.”

But in defending the trade, he said they had not been implicated in any attacks against the U.S. and there was no basis to prosecute them.

He said there was “no direct evidence of any direct involvement in their direct attacks on the United States or any of our troops,” though they were combatants and “part of planning.”

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, asked him to clarify.

“So your point was they didn’t pull the trigger, but they were senior commanders of the Taliban military who directed operations against the United States?” he asked.

“That’s right,” Hagel said.

One thing Hagel tried to emphasize, as was noted in his opening remarks, was that the decision to recover Bergdahl is a separate matter from the issues surrounding the Taliban detainees or other details.

There are legitimate questions about this prisoner exchange, and Congress obviously has an important oversight role to play in all military and intelligence matters. As a former member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I appreciate the vital role Congress plays in our national security. And I will present to this committee – within the limits of an open, unclassified, hearing, and in more detail in the closed, classified, hearing – everything I can to assure you that this prisoner exchange was done legally, with substantial mitigation of risk, and in the national interest of our country.

Let’s start with Sergeant Bergdahl’s status as a member of the U.S. Army. He was held captive by the Taliban and the Haqqani network for almost five years. He was officially listed as “missing – captured.” No charges were ever brought against him and there are no charges pending now. Our entire national security apparatus – the military, the intelligence community, and the State Department – pursued every avenue to recover Sergeant Bergdahl, just as the American people and the Congress expected us to do. In fact, as this committee knows, there were a number of Congressional Resolutions introduced, and referred to this committee, directing the President to do everything he could to get Sergeant Bergdahl released from captivity. We never stopped trying to get him back, as the Congress knows, because he is a soldier in the United States Army.

Questions about Sergeant Bergdahl’s capture are, as Mr. Smith noted and you, Mr. Chairman, separate from our effort to recover him – because we do whatever it takes to recover any and every U.S. service member held in captivity. This pledge is woven into the fabric of our nation and of its military. As former Central Command Commander Marine General Jim Mattis recently put it, “bottom line, we don’t leave people behind, that is the beginning and that is the end of what we stand for … we keep faith with the guys who sign on, and that is all there is to it.”

You can view the entire hearing on video here at C-SPAN.

[Featured image: C-SPAN video]